“Fly Your Freak Flag” Recommends Gary Lennon, Co-Showrunner of ‘Power’ on Starz
Prolific film and TV writer, Gary Lennon took some time out of busy schedule to share his thoughts on screenwriting with Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
Lennon (no relation to John Lennon of Beatles fame) began his writing career as a playwright. His primary motivation to write was to take a deep dive into the human condition. He’ s particularly attracted to people living on the fringe, people who are broken, people who are damaged. People trying to make sense of their lives. People wanting a transformative experience. This sounds depressing, but in doing so Gary helps people “transcend their human limitations and aspirationally change their lives for the better” through a journey of healing.
When asked what draws him to such dark characters, Lennon stated “I was orphaned at age twelve. I had an older brother who was negligent and didn’t take care of us. We are now estranged. I dropped out of school during my last year of high school. I was on my own from a young age. I had a rough life. I started drinking and became sober when I was in my early twenties. This gave me the clarity to pursue my ambition to be a screenwriter.” Gary has the necessary background to relate to the characters he writes about; especially Tommy [Egan] in Power. “This gives me wish fulfillment because I create conversations between the character and myself. Since I no longer have a brother in my real life, I can work it out through Tommy.“
Lennon describes his transition from writing plays to writing screenplays as “a trial by fire.” He started out with a play called ‘Blackout’ which played in a small room to smaller audiences. Based on this, he was subsequently hired to adapt his play into a screenplay. This became an indie film called ‘Drunks’ starring Faye Dunaway, Sam Rockwell, and Dianne West. The most significant difference between writing for the stage and screen is the ubiquitous mantra screenwriters always hear “show don’t tell.” Dialogue is the language of the stage and moving images is the language of the screen. Gary insisted that the two crafts must be merged into one with a film. Moving pictures underscore a film’s story, but it is driven forward with dialogue.
Gary has had the luxury of both writing his own projects and being hired to write numerous TV shows including Power, Justified, Orange Is The New Black, Black Box, and The Unusuals. He is currently executive producing Euphoria for HBO. When asked whether he considers himself a writer for hire or an auteur, his response was a resounding auteur. Even though he is hired to bring someone else’s vision to the screen (he shares showrunning duties on Power with creator Courtney Kemp,) he brings his own sensibilities “in service to the show.” However, he is always developing his own original film scripts and plays during his downtime. Lennon quotes Scorsese to describe the process; “You write one for them [to pay the bills] and one for yourself. [to fuel your passion] But it’s [the writing] always you.“
When elaborating on intersecting his own vision on a TV show with the showrunner’s as a hired gun, Lennon insists “you have to find yourself in the material. You have to connect with something in it. Is it a character flaw? An ambition? A relationship? The world? You do your best work when you find pieces of yourself in somebody else’s work because it’s honest.”
He continues, “our job as film and TV writers is to create characters that live truthfully under imaginary circumstances, and then photograph it. We’re trying to photograph the truth.“
When questioned about his writing style, Lennon responded with the terms “healing… cathartic.” He is a better person because he battled his demons on the page. Other words that came to Gary’s mind, include an eclectic mix of “edgy, gritty, real, heartbreaking and hilarious… Often at the same time.”
We probed deeper into Gary’s antithetical marriage of simultaneous darkness and humor in his writing. Gary saw no issue with this. He justified his position by “when you’ve been through a trauma, humor is the only way to get through it. When something bad happens to me, like abandonment, I don’t wallow in self-pity. I move. And I find the humor in it to help me. You laugh and you cry. Humor has been my savior… my lifejacket.“
Lennon has shown remarkable adaptability and resilience to staff on a variety of TV shows. How does he prepare for his TV writing staffing gigs? He does his homework, watches the show and is ready to pitch as soon as he enters the TV writers room. “Where will these characters go? One of the things about being a TV writer is having opinions about characters, even if they’re wrong. It gets the ball rolling, even if the showrunner doesn’t see it that way.”
Gary is currently working on Power (for Starz). Given that the characters are largely black, he was asked about writing authentic characters. He is sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation, but does not see it as a problem. He mines his own background to bring his truth to the TV show. He immediately connected with the character of Tommy [Egan], a tough, white guy in a predominantly black neighborhood. “Tommy reminds me of my brother,” which immediately gave him a deep reservoir of storylines to tap into. “The world was very familiar to me. I grew up in New York in the 70’s. Hells’ Kitchen. There was violence… crime... so I was familiar with these characters and their interactions.” He later worked in the nightclub business in New York [Studio 54] which complemented his audition to write for Power. The TV show is set in a nightclub. “I know these people. I’ve met them before. I never felt like I was a tourist. I was a native.”
Intimate knowledge of a TV show is a given in order to be hired as a staff writer. What sets you apart from the other TV writers when interviewing for a writing gig [assuming all the applicants are good TV writers] “is your life experience and who you are as a human being. That’s what you’re bringing to the table. You. Embrace all of you. Not just the parts you like.“
Gary swears by the therapeutic value of writing. “When I’m at my writing best, I’m telling you something I’m ashamed of. My deepest secrets.” The audience reacts to this. Firstly, they admire the braveness of Lennon to tell his truth and they are moved. “Embrace your mess. All the things that make you feel ‘other’ and different should be celebrated. That’s what makes you unique. Bring those superpowers to the writing table.“
Gary was asked what every screenwriter, budding and working, should be watching right now. He leaned back and chuckled in awe. “Wow. There’s so much good stuff out there right now. I love The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Glow, Homeland, Breaking Bad… Don’t forget The Crown.” If you’re a screenwriter trying to break in, write in the genre and format you want to write in. “If you want to write hour-long dramas, write those. The main thing is to show me who you are. What do you want to say to the world? What do you want to leave behind? What’s your legacy? Show me something I’ve not seen before, yet very familiar. Focus on honesty and universality.”
He reinforces his point “When I say show me who you are, don’t write a memoir. If you get staffed on a cop show, give it your voice and specificity, while remaining true to the showrunner’s vision.“
When you’re looking to break into the business, be mindful of how the business works, but don’t obsessively focus on it. Newer writers should focus on constantly writing new material. Getting a manager may not be the panacea to propel your screenwriting career. Create content you are proud of. “It could be a short story, a play, half-hour drama. Make it outstanding to make you stand out from the pack. Tell the world you are someone special. Write about things that matter to you. Make sense of your chaos. Tell the story that nobody else can tell. Tell the story you must tell.”
When asked what patterns and trends are emerging in the current film and TV market, Lennon defines the landscape as “the Wild West.” Everything works, from tentpole movies to small personal films. “The market is vibrant. Alive. There is room for all kinds of stories. Diversity is on the rise. Under-represented communities are now seeing themselves and their stories on television.“
His final words of advice for screenwriters “Let Your Freak Flag Fly.”
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